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The Toe Poke

The will to compete

On an enthralling Sunday evening, a brave, surprising second-half display by Sevilla brought some of the lost excitement back to La Liga. After a few seasons performing remarkably in both domestic and international competitions, this season's Sevilla appeared to have lost not only their uncanny ability to rebuild their side over the summer while remaining competitive, but also their unparalleled will to fight from equal to equal with the rest of the top-tier clubs. This match could very well put the Sevillistas back on the right track.

Right before hosting leaders Barcelona this weekend, Sevilla's management had finally decided to let unhappy striker Luis Fabiano return to Sao Paulo FC for a meagre bag of crisps. The forward's evident desire to leave for the capital of flamenco dancing provided the main rationale for the decision, although the club especially wanted to avoid paying his hefty salary.

Sevilla had already been preparing for next season, considering the brutal impact that non-qualification for the Europa League could have on their finances and their ability to retain a few of their key pieces. Given this context, it only made sense to offload the miserable Fabuloso even before this season ended, although one can't help but sympathise with Sevilla, doing wonders to keep their finances balanced, while Real Madrid and Barcelona have guaranteed cash from TV rights regardless which position they occupy at the end of the season.

But coming back to the Sanchez Pizjuan, this was one of those matches that make die-hard supporters briefly forget the recent evolution of La Liga towards a firmly managed duopoly, though Barca fans could be excused for lamenting their 'bad luck' when discussing Sunday night's contest. After the first 45 minutes, the Catalans led 1-0, thanks to a selfless pass from former Sevillista Daniel Alves to Bojan, who hesitantly converted the chance.

Barcelona had looked by far the better side, wasting quite a few opportunities to double their lead. Sevilla resembled a groggy boxer walking into their dressing-room at half-time and were threatening yet another disheartening effort in a key bout, as has often been the case this season. Even boss Gregorio Manzano left the pitch looking at the sky as though asking for advice.

Any Spanish radio commentator would qualify the second half as no apta para cardiacos (not recommended for those with a heart condition). Manzano did appear to receive some help from above, though, as his substitutions worked perfectly. Sevilla managed to quickly draw level and then turned the match into an open contest, although Barcelona still enjoyed the lion's share of the chances, hitting the woodwork twice and seeing Sevilla's recent signing Braulio Medel clear one ball off the line. Eventually, Andres Iniesta's solo efforts proved insufficient, and both teams took only one point back home.

Miguel Angel Perez Lasa's lousy refereeing can't be ignored: he drove everyone crazy and erred right, left and centre, irritating both sides and even the neutrals with his decisions. If limiting the power of the duopoly should have already become the main priority of La Liga's governing body, professional refereeing remains such an ancient, unresolved matter in Spain that no one even bothers to discuss it anymore.

On Saturday, the other member of the dynamic duo had already done their homework. A Real Madrid squad with their minds focused on Wednesday's Champions League return leg against Lyon lazily defeated Hercules at the Santiago Bernabeu. If Sevilla's thriller provided us with all the expected reunions (Seydou Keita, Adriano and Daniel Alves all played against their former team), the match in the Paseo de la Castellana left a sour taste among the Madridistas.

They were indeed able to devote a few rounds of applause to Javier Portillo, the Hercules forward fondly remembered by the Merengue faithful because of his key goal against Borussia Dortmund during Real Madrid's last taste of European glory, back in 2002. They also took advantage of the occasion to boo Esteban Vigo, the former Barcelona player now coaching Hercules, while many were left astonished on discovering that Herculanos starting midfielder Javier Farinos - formerly of Valencia - is only 32. However, due to one of those 'we'll-send-you-on-loan-but-you-can't-make-us-look-bad' clauses, Real Madrid supporters were deprived of the presence of the inimitable Royston Drenthe and his 20-man posse at the Bernabeu.

Drenthe's absence became even tougher to swallow after the Hercules president Valentin Botella had spent all of Friday explaining to every member of the media known to man that he had informed Real Madrid's general manager, Jorge Valdano, in excruciating detail about Drenthe's questionable off-the-pitch hobbies in Alicante. "I believe he's doing pretty similar things to those he used to do in Madrid," Botella said.

Without Drenthe's tireless, chaotic movement on the pitch, the Bernabeu match became a predictable, boring encounter in which only a few classy moments by Mesut Ozil, and Karim Benzema's recovered goalscoring prowess, made it worth the commute to the stadium. While the German has always looked the part, Jose Mourinho seems to have finally managed to get the best out of the enigmatic Frenchman. Since the second half of the season started, Benzema has scored eight times in nine matches, and, according to a poll by Marca, 92.8% of Real Madrid supporters believe he should start against Lyon on Wednesday. That poll result would have sounded like a poor joke right before Christmas.

But if Benzema's numbers are getting better, relegation-threatened Hercules have already spent 1,043 minutes, or over 11 matches, scoreless away from home, a dumbfounding and ironic 'achievement' by the only club able to beat Barcelona in La Liga this season, having done it at the Camp Nou no less. The Alicantinos are 70 minutes away from breaking La Liga's all time record, held by Deportivo's 1965-66 side.

The weekend results left Real Madrid five points behind Barcelona in their head-to-head title fight. But the real fun/drama lies elsewhere. Just like Phil Ball predicted in his last Quiniela, the struggling teams finally began to wake from their torpor.

Sporting took advantage of Villarreal's increasing troubles to keep up with a demanding calendar, rescuing a last-gasp, unexpected away draw while they were playing with only nine men. Zaragoza didn't waste the opportunity of demolishing a blatantly depressed Valencia, unable to recover physically and mentally after their Champions League exit at the hands of Schalke. In another underdog win, bottom of the table Malaga shocked Real Sociedad in Anoeta, while Almeria got one point in their home match against Atletico.

This means that, out of the bottom five teams, two of them won and another two drew, shortening the gap with their rivals and setting the stage for a mouth-watering upcoming weekend, in which we'll enjoy three six-pointers between relegation-threatened teams, plus Real Madrid v Atletico, Sevilla v Valencia and Villarreal v Athletic. Not bad for a two-horse race ... Stay tuned!


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